“Even if we can’t be together as normal, no-one needs to feel lonely this Christmas”, tweeted Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. “We’re giving £7.5m to charities, arts organisations, libraries and local radio stations to help them reach people at particular risk of isolation”, he reasoned. So if you’re feeling lonely this Christmas, just turn on Classic FM, and Shazam! Your loneliness will dissipate in the strains of symphonies past. There is simply no need to feel lonely when the Royal Albert Hall has been given a £20.74m loan offer from the Culture Recovery Fund. These grants alleviate isolation, so no-one need feel isolated at all.
Loneliness isn’t something you reason; it isn’t something you weigh in terms of need or want. Loneliness descends upon you unawares. It is not sleeping when you are tired; not eating when you are hungry; not keeping warm when you are cold. Loneliness is just a void in a vacuum; a gnawing ache in an existing agony.
Millions more than usual will be feeling lonely this Christmas, principally because half the country is in a Tier 4 Covid lockdown, unable to meet with family or friends. And millions more will be in a Boxing Day Tier 4 lockdown. Not just the elderly and middle-aged, but thousands of students are presently trapped in their university halls of accommodation, with nothing to look forward to but the Vice Chancellor playing Santa.
Perhaps you’ll go to bed on Christmas Eve after watching A Muppet Christmas Carol for the eighth time. Perhaps you’ll have bothered to mull a glass of wine and microwave a mince pie. But joy and laughter will be half a world away. Some of you will hum along to Carols from Kings, as you do every year, staring at the lights draped around the tinsel tree which you decorated for not a word of praise from any soul. Because there’s no one there for you. ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ isn’t just a carol; it’s the haunting essence of this Christmas.
Singleness loneliness is rarely talked about. The assumption is that the young, fit and gregarious could easily go to their parents’ for the day if they wanted to, but they really can’t face another year of arguments and stony silences. And so they decline the invitation to form a ‘bubble’, feeling unable to accept for fear of extracting token presents from another family’s merriment. They’re not a purposeful obdurate Grinch; it’s just that seeing others’ happiness tunes them back to the wavelength of their own loneliness. It’s a sad cycle of self-isolation.
And then there are the separated, divorced or recently-bereaved. Relationships break down, and some never get started for various reasons of disposition, orientation or holy vocation. And some end tragically and unexpectedly: widows and widowers come in all shapes and ages. When you lose your life partner, your soulmate, the one you hoped would sleep at your side and share a thousand old and grey moments with you, you drift aimlessly from room to room hearing echoes of laughter from the ghosts of Christmases past, and you howl. But it’s a private sob; an inconsolable song of grief which no one else hears. You just wander up to bed dreading waking up to a cold, silent, empty home. There’ll be no one there in the morning to wish you a Merry Christmas; no one with whom you can toast the birth of the Saviour, or hand you a shiny purple gift with a whispered kiss.
And the lovely spaniel you once taught to speak with her eyes and roll over for a meaty morsel no longer wags her tail. You greet the imaginary presence, but there’s no patter of tiny paws or morning licks of love. No sliding on the ice or bounding in the snow with a flashing-blue jungle-bell Christmas collar. She’s gone, too, and all that’s left are golden hairs on the carpet and bits of chewed slipper. You keep finding them in dark corners: every precious fragment is a recollection of past playtimes and puppiness. But that’s all gone.
Don’t mock loneliness or deride the lonely until you’ve sat down and listened to someone bawling their eyes out for what might have been or used to be and will never be again. You may go to bed at midnight, wide-eyed with joy and childish anticipation. They, childless, fly back to their childhood, to an age when Santa came down chimneys, Rudolf shone, snowmen talked, and we three kings from Orient were. And now, grown up, all they have to look forward to is chopping a carrot, peeling three potatoes and cooking a roast for one. If they can be bothered. Oh, family will phone, and merry christmasses will be exchanged. But don’t ask them if they’re okay or what they’re doing for the day. They’ll just laugh and lie in their loneliness. It’s normal.
Merry Christmas one and all. Bless you for being here.